Sam Gilliam: pushing art’s boundaries

Sam Gilliam, ‘Dark of the Moon,’ 1991, mixed media, realized $40,000 in January 2018 at Alex Cooper

NEW YORK – Sam Gilliam (b. 1933) is arguably a master of the canvas, not content to simply apply paint to it but to transform it until his paintings nearly pulse with color and dimensionality.

Among his early radical achievements were his beveled-edge paintings, where he applied paint to canvases, which he then manipulated, cut and folded even before the paint had dried. “He then stretched the canvas over a chamfered frame, lending the painting a spatial and object-like quality,” according to the Kunstmuseum Basel, which presented a major show of Gilliam’s work in 2018.

Sam Gilliam, ‘Of Yellows and Gingers,’ 1979, fetched $80,000 in November 2017 at Rago Arts and Auction Center. Photo courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers

From his beginnings in Mississippi, the artist has achieved much distinction in the art world and is today considered one of the top Color Field painters. He was the first African-American artist to represent the United States in the Venice Biennale, which he did in 1972, and again in 2017. He is closely associated with the Washington Color School painters.

“By layering, shaping and building canvas and paper, Gilliam gives the surface an active rather than passive role in the work,” said Wade Terwilliger, president of Palm Beach Modern Auctions in West Palm Beach, Florida. “He is best known for his “Drape” paintings [starting in 1968], monumental swathes of painted and draped canvas. The scale of these works appeals particularly to our Palm Beach clientele, as well as museums and other public spaces. His smaller works, though even some of these measure 6 to 7 feet, impart the same feel on an intimate level that invites closer inspection.”

Sam Gilliam’s abstract 1976 painting, ‘Gild and Tropic,’ sold for $70,000 in February 2017 at Palm Beach Modern Auctions. Photo courtesy of Palm Beach Modern Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Gilliam pioneered the use of unsupported canvases in the mid-1960s, reportedly finding inspiration for this in how laundry hung outside his studio. He typically hung his drape paintings from the ceiling or displayed them in groupings on floors or walls, creating a physicality in real space and further blurring the definition between painting and sculpture. By the 1970s, he adapted his style again in favor of striking geometric collages that were influenced by jazz music that he painted in varying hues of black, and by the 1980s he was slicing and piecing together pieces of thickly painted canvases to create quilted-style paintings that paid homage to the crazy quilts tradition.

“Emerging from the Washington, D.C., scene in the mid-1960s with works that both elaborated upon and disrupted the ethos of Color School painting, he has subsequently pursued a wide-ranging pioneering course in which improvisation and experimentation have been the only constants,” according to a press release issued by the David Kordansky Gallery for a 2016 exhibition on Sam Gilliam, one of several the gallery has mounted for the artist.

Sam Gilliam’s ‘Bad River Series I,’ 1988, brought $70,000 in November 2018 at Heritage Auctions. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Gilliam’s auction sales have been climbing over the past several years, with those commanding the highest prices being the biggest and brightest works, Terwilliger noted. “Primarily painted between 1967-1971, they feature colors that shift and meet – perhaps even mingle at their borders – yet retain their vibrancy and purity. Also doing well are his square geometric works, with several smaller works having sold recently above $100,000,” he said. “Shape and texture are also deciding factors, with layered and shaped canvases and unusual/texturized surfaces doing very well.”

“In general there are two factors at play with Gilliam: one, the rise in popularity of the Washington Color school, particularly in D.C., and/or plus the rise in popularity of African American artists,” said Matthew Quinn, executive vice president of Quinn’s Auction Galleries in Falls Church and Louisa, Va. “D.C. is increasingly proud of its artists and culture, and this only stands to improve over time. I think D.C. art allows its culture to seep beyond the discontent of politics and its public perception of an extension of Capitol Hill.”

Evincing the patchwork quilt theme is this abstract diptych on paper by Sam Gilliam. Photo courtesy of Palm Beach Modern Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Gilliam’s enduring art legacy extends beyond being an artist to his role as a teacher/mentor who has been generous with his time, leading workshops and giving lectures in recent years. “Beyond his developments in the handling of surface materials, Sam Gilliam was a teacher and creator of large scale installations – always following his lifelong passion of connecting with the public in some way,” Terwilliger said.
Gilliam’s works have been steadily climbing in value and some of his paintings that a few years ago would have brought five figures are now easily attaining six-figure prices. The art world is fickle, however, and artists often fall in and out of favor with buyers in cycles. Gilliam’s current high is long overdue.

For new collectors, editions present a great starting point to access Gilliam’s ouevre. “Gilliam’s signed and numbered screenprints and lithographs retain or rise in value and are financially accessible,” Terwilliger said. “Editions can be found at a range of price points from $1,000 to $7,000, depending on the type of print, with the high end being monoprints.”

Whether Sam Gilliam is folding, cutting, crumpling or staining his canvases, he is undeniably challenging conventions of what art looks like and the physical space it occupies.